The Competition for Great Highway: A Historical Analysis - Introduction
by Nicole Meldahl
Everybody is talking about what should be done with Great Highway. Should it be closed to traffic and made into an expansive park activated by community programming? Should it stay open to traffic to ease the commute for those who can’t afford to live and work in San Francisco? Should it be open to cars during the week and made into a recreation sanctuary on weekends and holidays?
Since Western Neighborhoods Project (WNP) is not a political organization, it’s not for WNP to determine the outcome of this politicized debate; that should be the will of a democratic majority. But, these questions compelled us to research how the highway and the land around it have evolved over time. And, as it turns out, there is a long history of competing visions for San Francisco’s westernmost shore.
Great Highway and connecting Point Lobos Avenue exist because wealthy land owners wanted to bring people to the west side where an ever expanding array of amusement options seemingly rose from the sand like magic through the late 19th- and most of the 20th-centuries. Some land owners, like populist Adolph Sutro, sought to give San Franciscans affordable recreation opportunities while others wished to enhance the values of their property and grow their businesses. Often, it was a combination. These roads also exist as a testament to civic pride and the seemingly inevitable march of what we now call gentrification. Not dissimilar to today, community groups like neighborhood improvement clubs; cultural groups formed around common interests, like biking and drag racing; and real estate developers sculpted the landscape according to their desires.
View northeast toward Great Highway from Playland to Sutro Heights, June 1969 - Courtesy of a Private Collector
It’s never been contested that San Franciscans and visitors alike deserve easy access to a preserved shoreline that provides a place for them to relax and enjoy its amenities. But this means that any work on these roads must satisfy many overlapping needs. Historically, infrastructural upgrades to both Great Highway and Point Lobos Road have consistently balanced pedestrian access and recreational needs of the time with the ever-increasing prevalence of vehicles, from horse-drawn carriages to the modern automobile. This was (and continues to be) done alongside the herculean task of subduing migrating sand dunes while mitigating other environmental factors, like coastal erosion and waste management needs brought on by encroaching suburbs.
Ultimately, these roads have never just been about transit or public open space; they’re a mirror for the shifting priorities of the people who control the Outside Lands, which are as fluid as the sand beneath them. Whether they were bohemians or capitalists, saloon keepers or city engineers, landowners or shantytown squatters, bicyclists, surfers, or drag racers: Great Highway has gotten them all where they needed to go.
Over the next two months, we’ll explore this history in a series of articles you’ll be able to find on our website, Outsidelands.org, as follows:
1. Beginnings: 1850s - 1880s
2. From Carville to Oceanside: 1890s - 1913
3. Seawalls and Stabilization: 1910s - 1920s
4. Playland and Beyond: 1930s - 1950s
5. The Modern Era: 1960s-1990s
6. The Current Debate: 2020-Now
Stay tuned to see if you can guess where this road will lead us.
View southeast toward Ocean Beach from future Cliff House site, circa 1855 - Marilyn Blaisdell Collection/Courtesy of a Private Collector
Editorial note: This article is the amalgamation of resources created for Western Neighborhoods Project by Woody LaBounty, Christopher Pollock, and Arnold Woods.
The research into this history is ongoing and is not definitive. Any exploration into land ownership in San Francisco could actually be a very short story because this is the unceded ancestral territory of the Ramaytush Ohlone. That’s a complicated history we won’t be digging into here, as is how the land was divided up in the Spanish- and Mexican-eras. Those are subjects which merit their own thoughtful research.